In Ukraine, Tango Meets Torah

Photo by Olga Tarnavskaya; 3rd Tango Marathon Kiev

by Naomi Telushkin

The milonga, a tango rhythm, was hard to find in Kyiv. Across the street from a glaring McDonalds, next to an isolated road by the Dnipro River, I finally spotted an elusive street sign with the correct address for the tango hall. Elegantly dressed Ukrainian women glided past in stilettos. The doormen looked me over and hesitatingly said, “Number five.”

“When you’re a beginner, you struggle a lot with getting inside the circle – you have to be very insistent to come,” said Alexandra, the current president of the Kyiv Hillel in describing her beginnings with Kyiv’s tango society. As we sat and observed those dancing by, she constantly connects her passion for dance with Judaism.

“Getting accepted by the tango community always reminds me of a non-Jewish person coming to a rabbi. You have to get rejected three times before he accepts you for conversion.”

For Alexandra and other young Ukrainian Jews, the community aspect of tango has a particular appeal. The joy of this dance mirrors the excitement they are finding in their own new Jewish communities. Judaism has been a slowly unfurling process for young Jews in countries that suffered under Communist oppression until 20 years ago. That process – aided by a variety of JCCs, synagogues, and Jewish cultural and educational activities now available in Ukraine – can eventually be mastered. And that notion is very promising.

“It was just like learning the holidays and the rules of Shabbat,” said Alexandra. “I’ve been with Hillel since 2003, but when I came, I knew nothing about Judaism. I had to learn what Rosh Hashanah is.” She laughed. “And then I became a holiday coordinator.”

Tango, like Jewish life itself, has a long history in Ukraine. The famous tango song El Choclo was being sung in Odessa during the 1920s. Dance scholars have discovered Russian and Yiddish tango music in towns such as Uman dating from the period as well. And when Jewish immigrants left Ukraine and began arriving in Buenos Aries, they arrived with a background in tango music from their home orchestras. Those same Jewish immigrants went on to dance and compose tangos in order to integrate into the larger Argentine community. More than 80 years later, Jews in Kyiv are dancing tango today as a return to Judaism.

As a recent Jewish Service Corps Fellow for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Ukraine, my fellowship work mostly involved developing programs within the young adult Jewish community. What I was most struck by during my time was how popular dance, especially tango and salsa, have become in Kyiv. In fact, many young Jewish women were initially attracted to Jewish organizations such as Hillel for their dance programming.

For the young Jewish community of Kyiv, what has been so transformative is the consistent discovery that strangers with seemingly different interests share a richer, deeper passion – that of a newly formed religious identity. The same excitement persists in the dance communities. Complete strangers become intimate partners in the course of one milonga.

“I had this fight with tango – but you learn when you get through the difficulties,” Alexandra said. “I used to fight the same way with Shabbat, with holidays. When it’s difficult, I don’t want it, I don’t need it. But then you realize it brings you so much joy. It’s just about getting on to the next step …”

Naomi Telushkin, a writer based in New York, has previously been published in Tablet, The St. Petersburg Press, will be pursuing her MFA at Arizona State University.